Let's talk about sex shall we? Come now we are all adults here. Well we try to be adults. Now we are not going to talk about graphic sex or over stylized soft focus erotica. I want to talk about sex and how it it used in mystery and crime novels. Noir novels specifically. Because for me sex and lust are one of the main pillars of the House of Noir. Countless letters have been arranged into a multiplicity of configurations that examine the idea that noir fiction is about ennui and misanthropy but I posit sex and how it is expressed in fiction is just as important as the malaise of the soul that permeates both traditional and neo-noir.
In Eliot Chase's classic novel BlACK WINGS HAVE MY ANGEL, sex is a metaphor for the feral freefall of the main character. Tim Sunblade and Virginia have a relationship that is equal parts lust and lassitude. They are partners in crime but they are also desperate shipmates on a voyage of self-destruction. Their frenzied couplings are physical manifestations of their shattered psyches. Their sex is not intimate. Its the blind idiot wind that blows two lost souls over a cracked rainbow.
In George Pelecanos criminally underrated NICK'S TRIP the main character Nick Stefanos is a bartender and part time PI who is asked to search for a friend's missing wife. On the surface it's your basic paint by the numbers PI novel but look deeper. Nick's trip is a not only a bristling crime novel but a brilliant deconstruction of the PI as Lothario. Nick is approached by a friend to help her and her partner conceive a child. Sex in this book becomes nearly mechanical. It's intimate but almost in a platonic way. Nick does indeed have sex with his friend and we can only guess if she is with child but it feels like a favor akin to helping a friend move a couch. Juxtapose that with Nick's remembrances of his wild and fun filled youth. Specifically a trip he took with his friend Billy where sex became just another indulgence among a summer full of vices. By the end of the book we realize that long ago summer trip never ended for Nick. He is stunted as most protagonists in a PI series become. But we don't see Nick as a spoiled man child. We feel an immense sense of empathy for him. Or in more coarse language, Nick gets laid but he doesn't really get to enjoy it. And that is a projection of his current station in life.
TAMPA by Allison Nutting is the idea of lust and sexuality taken to Nth degree. An unsettling and at times disgusting novel about sexual obsession and the lengths someone will go to feed their obbession TAMPA's first person narration insidiously draws us into the narrators disturbed psyche. We are essentially co-conspirators in this abhorrent crime. And yet we can't look away. Its like watching a car wreck in slow motion recorded on a dashcam. Sex in TAMPA is disturbing. It's base and ugly but it is also our clearest window into the damaged mind of our narrator. The fact she is unrepentant only ratchets up the tension and our desire to see her held accountable for her actions. It is a testament to Nutting's skill that you are not really sure if her narrator will actually get her comeuppance. I'd posit that the physical act's in TAMPA are not really even sex. They are acts of violence. The fact it's called sex by our narrator says a lot about our society as a whole.
In the Kenzie/Gennaro series Dennis Lehane masterfully uses sex as a short hand to show us how his characters are growing and evolving. Patrick and Angie get together, they break-up , they find new lovers hook up with old ones and ultimately come back to each other and create a family. Lehane weaves stories about true intimacy that arouses us but also warms our hearts not just our loins. Patrick Kenzie is one of the more well adjusted protagonists in crime fiction and his relationships with the women in his life bears this out. Even when the physical connection is severed the women that have come into Patrick's bed and his life are still important to him. They may not all be his friend but none of them are his enemies.
Sex ,like violence in a crime novel is only as necessary as the story demands. Gratuitous sex makes us roll our eyes. But earned intimacy makes us care about the characters. It creates a connection for us as readers and it adds layers to our protagonists that otherwise might be ignored.
In essence we all get lucky.